TILT, BUMHUNTING, AND WHAT POKER CAN TEACH US ABOUT BUILDING A PRO SPORTS TEAM
Posted July 12, 2019
When I was a professional poker player, people used to ask me what it took to be good enough at playing cards to earn a living.
I told them it was about reading people, hopping inside their brains and unlocking how they think. It was about studying strategy for hours, memorizing the math and taming your emotions. These are the answers any good pro would give you. They make us sound like dedicated craftsmen, plying a trade most could never master. But we always skip the key that matters most. Because it doesn’t sound cool, and it doesn’t sound impressive. Truth be told, it sounds kind of gross.
The biggest key to making money playing poker is this: Play against bad players.
We call it bumhunting, and it is what it sounds like: Searching out the bum in the room or at the table. After all, a bad player is simply someone who loses significantly more money than he makes. So the more hands you play with him, the more likely you are to be there when he gives away his chips.
When people build sports teams, they ask themselves how do they get the best players? Or how do they get the best return for the ones they no longer want? But these are the wrong questions. What they really should be asking is how do they trade with the bad GMs? Because just like in poker, a bad GM is someone who gives away more than he gets back. So really, you just want to be in the hand when they screw up.
Certain players are bad all the time, others become bad due to circumstance. The term for that one is going on tilt. For some, tilt happens when they lose a few big hands in a row and get rattled. For others, it’s when they win too much and start getting cocky. For others, it’s when the cocktail waitress brings them drink number four.
And it’s the same in sports. Some GMs are dumb, others simply do dumb things due to circumstance. A player demands a trade. A new owner wants to make headlines. A superstar is nearing the end of his prime, and it’s essential to surround him with talent before it’s too late.
Last weekend, the Los Angeles Clippers—a team that has made nothing but savvy moves the last few years—became that victim of circumstance. Not a bum worth hunting, but a good player on tilt. When Kawhi Leonard told them the only way he would join their organization was if they traded for Paul George, they had no choice: They had to get Paul George.
Suddenly, the Oklahoma City Thunder were extracting a collection of seven first round picks and pick swaps, a talented young point guard, and a solid veteran on a decent contract for a player who didn’t want to be there anyway.
For the Clippers, George was the lead domino that subsequently got them Kawhi Leonard, so it may prove to be a good deal. But for the Thunder, it was a heist so audacious it would make the crew from Ocean’s 11 blush.
The Clippers’ crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, were similarly on tilt when they traded for Anthony Davis. Desperate for another star to pair with LeBron James, they too gave up an incredible haul for a player who didn’t want to play for his old team anyway. The Lakers were the player who was bad and on tilt.
It’s some combination of one or both of these traits (being a bum and playing on tilt) that made the Nets give up the world for a few aging stars from the Celtics, made the normally-unflappable Spurs give away Kawhi Leonard at a discount, and made the Knicks trade one of the best young centers in basketball to free up cap room in hopes of signing a couple of top-tier free agents.
The beneficiaries of these acts of GM malfeasance didn’t necessarily seek out the bad or overleveraged teams, but if that was what they had set out to do, it would have paid off.
Right now, the good teams are asking themselves how they can add depth, the up-and-comers are wondering how they get their next superstar, and the bad teams are figuring out how best to tear it all down. But what they really should be asking themselves is who’s dumb and who’s overleveraged, and how do we make a trade with them?
The Lakers are desperate to win now, but it’s easy to dismiss the idea of even sending them a trade proposal. They’ve stripped their franchise of any assets worth owning for the next six years, and they foolishly locked up all their cap space on a few free agents they can’t clear off the books until mid-December.
But a poker player would trade with the Lakers anyway. The team is so desperate for talent, they would kill for a couple of players who are even decent, and God knows what they’d give up for someone great. Yes, it looks like LA has nothing to offer, but what about their draft picks in 2025 and beyond. Does anyone doubt that the current Lakers front office would let loose countless future unprotected selections for anyone who could help them win right now? Yes, it’ll require waiting until mid-December to make the trade and waiting even longer to see the move pay off, but it’s a chance to get back far more than you give up from someone drunkenly dumping away his money at the end of an all-night bender.
All the star-hungry teams want to steal Bradley Beal from the Washington Wizards. But the Wizards refuse to trade him. So why not help them keep him? It feels like the most counter-intuitive thing in the world for some team to call DC and offer to give up a handful of decent players while also taking back John Wall’s disastrous contract, but just think how much that means the Wizards would give up to make it happen. The right team could get a pile of unprotected first rounders and pick swaps for their troubles.
The Knicks, who struck out on their targeted free agents after the aforementioned cap-space-clearing trade, are, like the Lakers, a bad player on tilt. How do you exploit that? I’m not sure. But if I was a GM, I’d be calling them to ask what they plan to do and how I can help.
A couple of months into my professional poker career, my parents randomly met a former pro. He gave them his number and said he’d be happy to give their son some advice. When we spoke, I was assuming we’d talk strategy and game theory. Instead, he told me about a time he was in Los Angeles and a friend called to tell him that some rich whale was dropping thousands of dollars playing cards in Vegas. So what did this professional poker player do? He canceled his plans, hopped in his car, and drove.
Nobody wants to take on a John Wall contract or wait until 2025 to start reaping the benefits of a trade made six years earlier, but to make money, sometimes you gotta drive four hours through the desert and get in a hand with the bad player before it’s too late. Because if you can, they’ll end up giving away a lot more than they get back. It’s what bad players do.
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